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Chemist vs Chemical Engineer: What’s The Difference?

When you hear the word “chemistry” you probably think back to the many hours spent in school trying to memorise the periodic table of elements.

For many of us, that’s the last connection we have to the concept of chemistry, even though there are chemical processes involved in your everyday life.

Just imagine that all the plastics you use in your food and beverage containers were, at one time, designed and tested by chemical specialists. More than that, the petrol you put in your car is the last step in a long line of chemical processes to turn crude oil into usable fuel. It’s all thanks to the field of Chemistry.

The problem is that the general public assumes that chemists are the only ones making important and fascinating chemical reactions on a daily basis. In reality, there’s another discipline that contributes just as much to both commercial and industrial processes in Chemistry – chemical engineers.

If you’ve ever wondered what the differences are between a chemist and a chemical engineer, then you’ve come to the right place! While the two disciplines are related, there’s enough distinction between the two job titles to warrant separate designations.

What is a chemist?

Chemistry is a scientific discipline and is most often associated with research and development. Chemists often work as researchers in public health laboratories, institutes, or government agencies. However, there are still plenty of private opportunities for chemists, too. In the industry setting, chemists often find themselves doing research and development for new products, creating patents, or investigating health and safety standards.

Regardless of the setting, the daily work of a chemist involves studying chemicals and observing how they behave under certain conditions. Chemists often contribute to new medicines, solve environmental issues, and even analyse forensic evidence!

According to the UK’s National Career Service, chemists have a salary expectation of £18,000 as a starting annual wage and up to £50,000 for more experienced researchers.

What is a chemical engineer?

Chemical engineering is closely associated with Chemistry as a pure science but it has some important differences, too. For one, chemical engineering can be more multidisciplinary and practical than what a chemist does in a lab. It often involves applying engineering science to industrial problems such as using equipment efficiently and producing the most cost-effective results.

One way to understand the differences between chemists and chemical engineers is that while chemists study the laws of nature and how substances interact, chemical engineers create solutions for how those same substances interact with human processes. That’s why chemical engineers often find themselves performing tasks that involve operating industrial machinery to create products for human consumption.

Chemical engineers may oversee the manufacturing of plastics, medicine, fuel sources and even health and beauty products. The number of products that include a chemical component in its production is nearly limitless!

Compared to chemists, chemical engineers may enjoy a superior salary outlook. In fact, chemical engineering is considered one of the best-paying professions in the UK as salaries have risen by 30 percent over the last decade.

What about innovation?

Chemists have long been considered important contributors to the world of innovation. In the scientific community, advances in the field of Chemistry have been recognised for over a century, popularised with the Nobel prize.

However, according to the Institution of Chemical Engineers, only six of the past 166 winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry can be considered chemical engineers. This discrepancy highlights the lack of recognition among the public for innovations and advancements that chemical engineers contribute to the field of Chemistry.

For many innovative companies and industry experts, chemical engineers possess the perfect mix of practical knowledge and design experience to make them a great fit for designing new products and innovating business processes.

Chemist vs. chemical engineer: an example

Let’s look at an example to help illustrate the differences in the daily tasks of a chemist and a chemical engineer.

Imagine an oil refinery that processes crude oil and transforms it into usable fuel for motor vehicles. The company employs both chemical engineers and chemists to ensure that operations run smoothly.

The chemical engineer is responsible for refinement processes such as separating deficiencies and unwanted substrates from the crude oil. The chemical engineer’s first priority is to ensure that the refinement process runs as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible given the scientific or economic constraints of the operation.

At the same refinery, a chemist is involved with the sampling, testing, and analysis of the inputs and the end products. A chemist makes observations and provides certification that the chemical process went smoothly.

Chemistry in everyday life

We hope that you now have an understanding of the differences between a chemical engineer and a chemist.

Whether you’re researching a new theory on your way to earning a Nobel prize or just researching a new product idea, having an understanding of the impact that the field of Chemistry has on our everyday lives is important. In everything from medicine to cleaning supplies, a chemist or a chemical engineer likely played a big role in transforming a prototype into a consumer product so that you can enjoy the benefits.


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